While the activity level is normal for the agency during the end of a presidential administration, the type of activity this time is "abnormal," according to William Wallace, manager of safety policy at Consumer Reports.
"We're seeing a lot of amendments to the safety standards, and we're seeing deregulatory measures," he said. "We haven't seen from the outgoing administration very much at all in the way of new safety standards, and that's absolutely abnormal and something that we hope is going to change soon because it's too important of a component of NHTSA's work for it to lay dormant."
King & Spalding's Glassman said the overarching trend in the Trump administration was to remove what it perceived as regulatory barriers to innovation that didn't pursue, or weren't necessary for, safety.
That deregulatory, hands-off approach has been evident as it relates to automated vehicles especially, Wallace said — a strategy Consumer Reports and others in the auto safety space have opposed.
"There are times when you want to take a look at the rules on the books and make sure that they're still serving safety in the way that they are supposed to, and then there are times when you're going to need to set new rules of the road," he said.
"There are times when you're going to need to set strong standards so the industry has clear signals and so new hazards don't emerge that put consumers at risk, put drivers at risk, on the road."
Wallace, who acknowledges the agency is "chronically underfunded and needs more resources," says he expects the Biden administration to recognize setting new standards as critically important.
"If you look back at NHTSA's history, it's the standards that have saved the most lives," he said.
James Owens, NHTSA's deputy administrator under Trump, said that while the agency conducts research to evaluate new technologies, establishes regulatory minimum safety standards when appropriate and investigates potential defects, it's up to the manufacturers to self-certify that their vehicles or equipment meet all applicable regulatory standards before those products are sold.
"To put it simply, regulations must necessarily follow technological maturity," Owens said in a paper posted by the agency this month.
NHTSA said it was not currently in a position to establish regulatory standards for emerging technologies and has not issued new performance standards for automated driving systems, specifically, because "this technology is still far from its endpoint."
"To regulate technologies before they are market-ready would stifle their development and, thus, their lifesaving potential," Owens argued. "Worse still, regulating without a full understanding of the technology could risk regulating the wrong aspects of performance and potentially lead to unexpected negative safety consequences in other ways."